The advantage of a break fron blogging is the chance to give a digested view rather than the momentary reaction to events that blogging encourages. Juan Cole is the only blogger who consistently produces up to the second considered brilliance; but then he has a brain the size of a small planet.
So here are a few well-digested thoughts on the recent ructions over UK/Libyan relations.
It was absolutely right to release al-Megrahi. Every dying person deserves what comfort, pain alleviation and disease amelioration can be provided by the presence of family and by medical treatment. There should be no place in a justice system for the cruel vindictiveness of making a now harmless person die in jail. Scotland and the SNP have shown a civilised example; those who attack them have shown ugliness. There is a secondary but also valid utilitarian argument that to keep al-Megrahi in strict confinement while providing necessary medical treatment would have cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of pounds. to no purpose other than making some vicious people happy.
The Tories have shown their blood-baying, American bum-sucking true colours. New Labour have been caught in their usual horrible hypocrisy, attempting to capitalise on anti-SNP right wing media reaction, while having been deliberately paving the way for the release for years.
Those who believe that al-Megrahi was the Lockerbie bomber. believe he acted on Colonel Gadaffi’s orders. I have neard no-one argue that al-Megrahi acted alone. Even mad Aaronovitch, who loves attacking conspiracy theories, appears to believe that there was a Libyan government organised conspiracy to blow up the plane. So if Gadaffi was responsible, what logic is there in a view that it is fine for Blair and Brown to be pictured smiling with Gadaffi, but al-Megrahi must rot in jail? Who is more guilty, the man who gave the order, or his tool? But New Labour have been doing everything they can to give the impression that Gadaffi is now absolutely fine and rehabilitated, but the SNP were wrong to release his agent. Where is the logic in that?
Jack Straw has admitted that trade was the deciding factor in his agreeing that al-Megrahi should not be excluded from the prisoner exchange agreement. Bill Rammell has admitted that as an FCO Minister he told the Libyans that Gordon Brown did not want to see al-Megrahi die in jail. There is no room to doubt that the UK’s assiduous courting of LIbya saw all kinds of positive signals given quietly on al-Megrahi, whose release was an obvious Libyan demand in the normalisation of relations.
The infuriating thing is that New Labour actually did the right thing in their dealings with the Libyans. Jack Straw’s positions and Gordon Brown’s message were the right ones. But a combination of fear of the United States, a right wing populist media instinct and a desire to attack the SNP has led New Labour to tyy to hide the truth – and try so badly as to bring down more media scorn than if they had just come out and supported the release in the first place.
Al-Megrahi was not the Lockerbie bomber. The scandal is not that trade deals and the realpolitik of relationship normalisation led to his release. The scandal is that trade deals and the realpolitik of relationship normalisation were what led the Libyans to hand him over in the first place – very much in the way their ancestors had given hostages to Imperial Rome. His family were richly rewarded, made wealthy for generations by his acceptance of the role of sacrificial lamb, and there was the hope that he would be acquitted. That he was convicted on very dubious evidence shocked many, especially Dr Jim Swire, representative of the victims’ families, who followed the evidence painstakingly and has never accepted al-Megrahi’s guilt.
Syria was responsible for the Lockerbie bomb. But in the first Iraq war, we needed Syria’s support, while Libya remained a supporter of Iraq. Lockerbie was a bar to our new alliance with Damascus, so extremely conveniently, and with perfect timing, it was discovered that actually it was the Libyans!! Anyone who believes that fake intelligence started with Iraqi WMD is an idiot.
It haunts me that I had a chance to read the intelligence reports which, I was told by a shocked FCO colleague in Aviation and Maritime Department where I then worked, showed that the new anti-Libyan narrative was false. I say in self-defence that at the time I was literally working day and night, sleeping on a camp bed. I was organising the Embargo Surveillance Centre and I was convinced that a watertight full physical embargo could remove the need to invade Iraq. I was impatient of the interruption. I listened to my colleague only distractedly and did not want to go through the rigmarole of signing for and transporting the reports I hadn’t got time to look at then. Events overtook me, and I never did see them.
Which is not to say the Libyan regime was not a sponsor of terrorism. It was. It just didn’t do Lockerbie. It did indeed supply Semtex to the IRA. I have an obvious sympathy with the victims of IRA bombing, and their desire to obtain compensation.
But think of this. Why just Libya?
Is the United States offering to pay compensation to the tens of thousands of victims of CIA sponsored insurgents in Central and South America? Are we and the US going to pay compensation to the victims of UNITA? Are we going to pay compensation to the victims of British made cluster bombs in the Lebanon? Are we going to pay compensation to the victims of Executive Outcomes? Are the Americans going to pay compensation to the Russian and Uzbek victims of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the days when he was a US sponsored terrorist? I could go on for a week.
Ultimately, negotiating with “terrorists” and “rogue states” has to be done. The strange thing is that New Labour’s Libyan policy has been one of its genuine successes – and makes a nonsense of its argument that we could deal with Saddam no other way. There should be more human rights emphasis in the relationship, but the apporach has been basically the right one, just as it was right to settle with the IRA, and just as it is long overdue to settle with the Taliban.
On a rare occasion when this government has shown wisdom, it appears ashamed of it.